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Strong and Straight

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Shane told me to grow up strong and straight, and so that's what I did, mostly.

That's what the town did, too. First the open range was well and gone, and there were more homesteads; and then there were some more of them, and every time you went back to town seemed like there was a new store or a new house. Sometimes I'd find myself thinking back to what it had used to be -- how life had been thin, and hard, and how the people scraping it out had been afraid to go to town -- and then I'd think how it was better now, and I 'd think, it wouldn't be like this, but for Shane.

Ma always said that wasn't fair. She said it wouldn't be like this for a lot of people, old and new, even the ones who came before us, even the bad ones. And Pa. And her, and me. And I always said, yes, that was true, but it still wouldn't be like this, but for Shane. And Ma always said, "Maybe so."

I never said that around Pa. I'd want to, but the words would stick in me, because I felt it wasn't right, to love Shane like I did, most as much as Pa. But one day when we drove to town, and the town itself came into good view, he reined in a bit outside it, and closed his eyes a bit. "What is it, Pa?" I said.

"I was just thinking," he said. "It wouldn't be like this, if not for Shane."

I said, "I was thinking that, too."

Later on, I'd realized Pa must have heard me saying it to Ma, or heard about it from Ma. But Pa didn't mind that I looked up to Shane; he'd never minded it. I think because he looked up to Shane himself. I wondered if Shane ever looked up to anybody. I didn't know who could've fitted the bill.

I was out chopping wood when I saw the rider coming. He was far off, so I kept working rather than just stand around and wait. I glanced up every so often to check on him, and when he was close enough that I recognized him I quit glancing and just worked while I waited for him to ride up to the fence.

I knew him but not all that well. His name was Scorzeny, and he was one of the new homesteaders. I'd seen him not long after he'd arrived, and but twice since. He stepped the horse up beside the fence, and sat there, and waited. There was something odd about him, and it took me a moment to realize the something odd wasn't him, at all. "Hello, Mr. Scorzeny," I said. "Is that a new horse you have there?"

"In a manner of speaking," said Mr. Scorzeny. He was a proud, stiff sort of man, who spoke like the subject of his conversation had somehow just contrived to disappoint him. "I was wondering if you might perhaps recognize it."

"Me, sir?"

"I'm still a relative stranger here, but you know the people, and their horses. This is the strangest horse theft I've ever seen."

"You had a horse stolen?"

"I have," he said. "Or, not so much stolen as swapped out. I went out this morning and found one of ours was gone, and this one in its place."

"I never heard of that," I said.

"I thought it might be somebody's idea of a joke. But I didn't recognize the horse. Have you seen it before?"

I looked at the horse, and the horse looked at me. Mr. Scorzeny kept talking as I sank the axe into the wood and walked away from him. "It almost seems like the kind of thing an honest man would do," he was saying. "If he had a horse, and needed a fresh one. But I've no idea why an honest man would steal a horse. Surely -- "

I stopped listening when I reached the door, because I was trying to figure out what I would say when I opened it and called in. "Ma," I said. "Pa." My voice was flat, and sounded strange to my own ears. "Come out here. Right quick."

Pa had been at table, so he was closer, and he made it to the door with the napkin still in his collar. Ma wasn't far behind, but when Pa stepped out and saw the horse, he stopped in his tracks. It took a moment for Ma to peer around him. When she did, she gave a little gasp. That said all I needed to know, but I said it anyway. I said, "It's Shane's horse, isn't it?" and Ma didn't say anything, and Pa said, "Yes."

"Mr. Scorzeny found it swapped with one of his this morning," I said. "Maybe Shane needed a fresh horse, one that was younger, and faster. But why didn't he come here, Pa?"

Pa set his lips in a frown, and he didn't say anything, just looked down at the ground. So it was Ma who said, "Because he felt he couldn't." She looked at Pa. "You think it's some trouble, don't you, Joe?"

"I'm afraid it must be," said Pa.

"You think he's tracking after someone, don't you, Pa?" I said. "I bet Shane could track somebody, sure as anything."

"I bet he could," Pa said. "But I'm worried it's something else."

Ma said, "You think somebody might be tracking him."

Pa didn't say anything after that. Neither did I. Because Shane wouldn't have anything to fear from somebody tracking him. Even a whole heap of somebodies, because Shane could lick any man if only he saw him coming.

Except maybe Shane wouldn't see him coming.

"Well," said Ma, "there's just one thing to do. The two of you must go after him, and help him, and bring him back here."

Pa and I rode out after Shane. We loaded the horses with a few days' worth of provisions, just in case, brought out a couple of rifles (Pa took his shotgun, too, strapped on the saddle), and went back along the trail from our place to Mr. Scorzeny's.

Mr. Scorzeny himself had begged off on going with us. That was fair, because he wasn't given to arms and his sight was too short to be much help as a lookout. He did ride along the track with us, until Pa spied out the place a horse had left the trail. It was a way I knew and had even ridden a little before, during the summer just before I'd turned eighteen. I'd come home again, thought for a moment there had been a struggle. Any fellow that age who gets to the top of a mountain with his home in one direction and the world in another just naturally thinks of striking off on his own. But I hadn't had any reasons to press on, and plenty of reasons to stay.

"Why would he be going this way, Pa?" I said. "If a man was tracking him, he'd want to go to town, to get help, and people to see. Shane wouldn't want to hide."

"Unless he'd done something wrong," Pa said.

"Shane wouldn't do that."

"No, I don't think he would."

"So maybe he's tracking somebody," I said. "But what's up this way? An old mine claim that didn't pay out. Can't get to the pass from up here. A man goes up into the mountains, he might get lost, or hurt, and die. He must be somebody who doesn't have anything to lose. Shane's brave."

"Maybe the man Shane is chasing is somebody who doesn't know where he's going," said Pa. "Or somebody who --" he broke off. "Look," he said.

A dark shape was going up the mountain, high up. I yowled, and whipped off my hat and waved it, back and forth. The figure turned, shaded its eyes, looked at me. Then it raised its arm.

The sound of the gunshots made its way to us later. We saw the recoil in the man's arm and how he stood, and I thought I could make out a little puff of smoke. But it wasn't right off that the report came. I didn't hear a crack or a whssst from the bullet. Pa and I moved on, though, until we were behind some rocks.

"That wasn't Shane," I said when we had the rocks between us and the man with the gun. "He wouldn't shoot at us, and if he did he'd sure hit us."

"Not without a rifle," Pa said. "It's too far for a pistol. And that man had a pistol, so I think we can chance it. But don't tell your mother."

"Why would the man Shane's chasing do that, Pa?" I said. "Shoot at people he's got to know he can't hit?"

"He's somebody who wants to lose," said Pa. "And he knows he's going to."

"Sure he will," I said. "Shane's chasing him."

Pa said, "So are we, now."

The way up narrowed and twisted after a ways. We went on, slower, and every once in a while we saw a sign letting us know we were on the right track. It wasn't hard to follow; there was really only one way, and it wound and turned as it went to the top.

I kept my eyes open, but I listened, too. I knew if Shane met up with the man he was chasing, there would be gunshots, and so I listened hard, like the act of my hearing would help Shane somehow.

I didn't hear any gunshots. Mostly, I heard the sounds of our horses, their hooves on the rock, and I heard Pa give a little grunt every now and then when the path sloped. It seemed like we were climbing forever, but then the mountain flattened out a little, and we turned and passed through what must have once been a spot for a miner's camp, and then we rounded another bend, and there was a man on a horse. The horse was Mr. Scorzeny's, and the man was Shane.

It almost didn't seem real to be seeing him again. I'd thought about him so much, and imagined him, in so many ways, that I couldn't tell him from a dream at first. But he was there, just Shane, as he'd always been, except he seemed shorter now. His buckskins were just as I'd remembered, and the gun he was almost a magician with was by his hip, and when he saw us he gave a little smile.

I said, softly, "Howdy, Shane."

"You took a chance waiting," Pa said. "How'd you know it was us?"

"Who else could it have been?"

"You heard my yell," I said. "Didn't you, Shane?"

"Oh, I heard it. So did Mr. Poughkeepsie, judging from the shots. It let me know I was right on his track."

"Who is Mr. Poughkeepsie?" said Pa. "What has he done?"

"He used to be a husband and a schoolteacher," Shane said. "Now he's a fugitive and a widower."

"Did he kill his wife, Shane?" I said.

"He did. He started just beating her, but after a time she'd had enough of it and her sister was going to help her run away from him. He found out and shot her. His wife, I mean. Helen was her name. It was the sister who called on me."

"Well," Pa said, "I wouldn't think you'd need more guns, but if you do, we've got them."

Shane glanced up, and his eyes narrowed. "Might want to find cover," he said.

He'd barely said it when Poughkeepsie started shooting again. It was still too far, though. Or if it wasn't, Poughkeepsie couldn't shoot. A couple of the bullets whanged off the rock more than a hundred feet away. Most of them didn't even do that. It takes some talent to miss a mountain when you're standing on it, but Poughkeepsie managed to pull it off. Then the gun fell silent.

I raised my rifle, but the dark shape that was Poughkeepsie ducked behind a rock and was gone. I thought about sending a shot in his direction on principle, but Shane shook his head, just a little from side to side, and I lowered the rifle again.

"He's got an old pistol with percussion caps," said Shane. "It'll take him a little while to reload. Shall we go up and get him?"

I said, "I reckon so."

Poughkeepsie had gone to ground in an area bounded by great, jutting rocks, all around and to every side. He'd turned his horse loose, and it waited at the end of the clearing, like it knew that after the people were done with their business someone would take it away, maybe to a nice stable where there'd be hay and a trough of water. Who was doing the leading probably didn't matter much to it, as long as there was hay and water at the end of the journey. Horses are like some people, that way.

Shane got down off his horse. Pa did the same, and so did I. We took our rifles to hand, but Shane held out a hand to keep us back. He kept his hand by his own gun, but he didn't draw, not yet. He just raised his voice, and spoke.

"Hello, Poughkeepsie," Shane said. "My name's Shane."

"You won't leave me," said Poughkeepsie. His voice was high-pitched and roughened, and the words came out in a despairing wail. "You'll never leave me, never leave me, why won't you leave me?"

"No," said Shane. "I won't leave you."

"You're not going to take me," said Poughkeepsie. "I won't let you take me, so leave me, leave me."

"I'm not alone," said Shane. "You know that. There are three of us, and they have rifles. One's got a shotgun on his saddle, and he's about to swap it out." Pa blinked, then went to his saddle and did it. He checked the shotgun, nodded at Shane. Shane nodded back, then went on talking.

"You can shoot at us if you want to," said Shane. "But I think you know how that'll end. And if we only wound you, we're not going to finish you off. It could be bad."

Poughkeepsie didn't say anything for a long time. I heard a gulp. "Leave me," he said. "Please, just leave me."

"I won't," said Shane.

"God!" cried Poughkeepsie. "What do I do? What can I do, what do I do?"

Shane said, "You can do what I tell you."

A minute went by, while Shane let that sink in. I gripped the rifle, knowing I had to be ready to use it if Poughkeepsie rounded the boulder, knowing Shane was fast enough I wouldn't get to. I heard Pa readying, too, and I wondered what it would feel like if we had to kill the man. I was ready to do it, if I had to, for Shane, for me and Pa, and for poor Helen, too, even if by rights she ought to have come first, and not last. Finally, Poughkeepsie said, "All right."

Shane said, "Throw out the gun. Then come out slowly, with your hands in the air, and sit down cross-legged where I can see you."

Poughkeepsie tossed out the gun. It landed in a little bit of dust and gravel. Another moment, and Poughkeepsie walked out after it. He was white-faced and red-eyed, and there were streaks on his cheeks where he'd been weeping. He held up his hands, got to his knees, then sat and crossed his legs. Pa and I covered him while Shane went forward and picked up the gun. Poughkeepsie didn't move until Shane withdrew, and then he lowered his arms and hugged himself, and rocked himself, and started softly crying.

Poughkeepsie's gun was old, and a little rusty. Shane's fingers plucked the caps from the nipples, tossed them aside, until only one remained. "Helen," Mr. Poughkeepsie moaned quietly, rocking back and forth. "Helen, oh God, Helen, what have I done, oh Helen."

"He… he does know what he's done," I whispered. "Doesn't he?"

Shane said, "He knows."

"Oh, Helen," moaned Poughkeepsie. "Oh, oh, oh. Miranda -- Miranda sent you, for me, for Helen, you're here to kill me, oh, oh, oh." He trailed off into a long moan.

Shane said, "Your wife's sister didn't send me to kill you, Poughkeepsie." His voice was flat. "She knows you for what you are. A low coward. She knows what you've done will eat at you, and she knows what you're bound to do now. And she knows if I bring you back, you'll just do it in a jail cell. All she sent me to do was to come after you, and bear witness, and take the word to her when you have done it."

"You'll leave me then?"

"I will."

Poughkeepsie thought on that for a little while. When he spoke next, his voice was small and broken, and he sounded like a little child. "Will you bury me?" he said.

"Yes," said Shane. "I'll bury you."

Pa said, "We'll bury you."

Poughkeepsie took the gun, when Shane held it out, and went behind the rock. I heard him crying and keening, and calling for Helen, and then I heard a little click, and more crying, and after that came the shot. After the shot was a soft thud, and then a little sound like water trickling on the rock, and then there wasn't any sound of anything, anymore.

We buried Poughkeepsie in a little overhang, not too deep because of the rock, and put a cairn over him and said a few words. They weren't easy coming, because I couldn't think of any that he merited. But then I recollected Psalm 38, which seemed to fit, and if I remembered it because it had fit me a time or two, that was my own affair. Pa thought we should say something for Helen, too, her being more deserving. Nothing fitting came to mind, though, so we said the 23rd Psalm, and hoped she wouldn't mind.

We didn't say anything as we rode back down, not at first. When we reached the foot of the mountain, I said, "I believe he would have done what he did even if you hadn't come for him, Shane."

"I believe so," Shane said.

"It goes to show you," said Pa. He'd ridden behind Shane and me on the way down, but now he brought his horse up alongside. "You can't run away from things." He paused. "Can you, Shane?"

"No," said Shane. His voice was soft enough I could barely hear him. "I guess you can't."

Mr. Scorzeny came out to meet us when he saw us riding up. "I'll be," he said. "Have you caught the miscreant who stole my horse?"

"That would be me," said Shane. "I'm very sorry for it. I was chasing a murderer, and couldn't let him get away. Thank you for taking care of mine."

Mr. Scorzeny frowned. His gaze turned from Shane to Poughkeepsie's horse. "You seem to go about accumulating horses, sir," he said. "Is that the murderer's, then?"

"Or yours," said Shane. "If you'd like him. As a sign of thanks." Scorzeny pursed his lips in a little frown, but Shane went on: "If there's anything I can do to make it up to you --"

"You any good at taking out stumps? I got a whale of one outside the kitchen window."

"I seem to recollect I've had my hand at one or two," said Shane.

"Me too," said Pa. They shared a look, then, and I knew they were thinking to that big old stump that they'd said plenty to, and licked together.

I said, "Let's give it a try."

We made our way home when the stump was done. It wasn't as bad a job as might have been: there was still daylight, and plenty of it. We took our shirts off for the job, and rode home without them. Shane's skin was slick with sweat, and mine and Pa's were too, and we were grinning at each other like we were kids.

We rode up to the house, and Ma came out onto the porch. She didn't say anything at first, just put her hand to her mouth, and then she was shaking her head and smiling. "Lands sakes," said Ma. "Look at the lot of you." She wasn't looking at me when she said it, though; she was looking at Pa, and at Shane.

Shane said, "Hello, Marian."

I said, "She'll want us to wash up, Shane, before we get anything to eat."

I got down off my horse and dashed over to duck my head under the bucket. When I was done, I pulled my shirt on and looked back over at them. When I looked up, I saw that Shane had dismounted and was standing next to Ma. She took her hand, put it on his and placed it on her waist, while her other hand reached out to Pa. Shane was looking at the both of them, and then Pa's hand came up and rested right on the back of Shane's neck, and Shane's hand, after a moment, came to rest on the back of Pa's, and all of the wind I'd ever had in my lungs just slipped away and out of me, and I let the bucket fall through my fingers.

I realized something all in an instant: that I wanted something, and what I wanted, and that I might could have had it but now I never could. My vision dimmed around the edges and all I saw was clouds, gray clouds, and when they cleared away I saw Ma, and her face was full of fear. And I turned away from what I'd seen, and I ran, and I ran, and I ran.

I didn't remember getting to the horse. I didn't remember getting on. I didn't remember riding, or how far, or how fast, but when I came back to myself I walked the horse for a while, to cool him down, and when I judged it was all right I stopped him and eased off him to the ground, and waited there for Shane.

He wasn't too far behind me. He'd followed at enough of a distance to let me run, and when he judged I was done he closed, until he was twenty yards away, and then he got off and walked with the horse.

"You didn't like what you saw," Shane said.

"I might've known," I said. "I might've -- I didn't think that -- I heard Pa talking to Ma once about you, but -- " I stopped, because my words were all tumbling over each other. When I got my breath back, I said, "But I didn't expect it from Pa. Not from Pa. But that's not why I ran."

Shane said, "Then why?" and I screwed up my face and looked down to the ground and wished I could sink into it, with the snakes and the scorpions and the mice, down into the dirt and never up again but when no one could see me.

Shane didn't say anything for a long time, and then he said, softly, "Oh."

We stood there for a long time. I still didn't look up. I could feel the wind whipping around me, and I could hear it on the brush, and I could even hear it, some, tugging on Shane, on his leathers and on him as it blew around him.

"I'll go away," said Shane.

"No," I said. "You've just come back, you can't go, not now."

"It's not fair to you," he said.

"And if you go away, is that fair to me? And Ma, and Pa?" That was when I knew what I had to do. It wasn't easy. I didn't want to do it. I wished with everything in me I didn't have to, but I knew I did, because if I didn't I'd hurt the people I loved most of all: Ma, and Pa, and Shane.

I said, "I'll go away."

"You can't," Shane said.

"There's food in the saddlebags. We packed it, when we came after you. I've got a little money in my purse. Enough for more food, and a change or two of clothes. I already brought a fresh shirt for the morning. I'll be all right, Shane."

Shane said, "You'll need something else."

Shane lowered his hands to his waist. He worked the buckle with his fingers, and pulled the strap free. Before I had time to be more than confused, he handed me his gun belt, and his gun. They felt heavy in my hand. But I put them to my waist, and buckled the belt on, and then I swung myself back astride. There was a strange echo to the moment, and I realized what it was of: the time Shane had rode into our valley, and how the guns had followed him, and how he'd ended the troubles and rode out again, leaving new peace behind him. And I recollected what he'd said to me.

"Tell Ma that all the guns are gone from the valley," I said, and turned my horse.

I heard him calling my name after me, but I rode on. I'd been where Shane was once, and I'd yelled like he did, and I knew like he'd known that sometimes you just have to keep riding, because it's better for the people you leave behind. It was strange, but that got me feeling better, in a way I couldn't understand. It was like I was Shane, now, and he wasn't any more. And that was good, because being Shane was hard for him, but for me, deep down, Shane was what I'd always wanted to be.

I rode on and only glanced back once, to see Shane tall against the sky, standing strong and straight, just like he always had, even when he'd walked away.

And I kept going, past the old graveyard, away, away and down the hill.